On Universe A and Abstract Comics

This is an excerpt from my two-hundred-page abstract graphic novel, Universe A. I have been working on abstract comics for two decades now (my first attempt at one dates from 2002), and in 2009 I edited Abstract Comics: The Anthology (Fantagraphics), the first book dedicated to the new genre. There I defined abstract comics simply as “sequential art consisting exclusively of abstract imagery,” while allowing for the definition to be “expanded somewhat, to include those comics that contain some representational elements, as long as those elements do not cohere into a narrative or even into a unified narrative space.”


On one hand, this expansion of the definition made a virtue out of necessity: at the time I was putting the anthology together there simply wasn’t enough material out there for two hundred or so pages of comics that consisted “exclusively of abstract imagery.” The decision also allowed me to bring in work by important precursors such as R. Crumb, Victor Moscoso, Jeff Zenick, or Gary Panter, whose pieces seemed to me intuitively to fit into this tradition while still containing a good amount of representational shapes. On the other hand, it’s clear that my rhetoric posited purely abstract comics as the ideal, while implicitly treating comics that fit within the “expanded definition” perhaps more as a transitional stage toward that ideal.


The astute reader of my Universe A excerpt will notice that these pages hover somewhere between the restricted and the expanded definitions. While no such things as Crumb’s pointing hands or disembodied eyeballs or Panter’s hissing cat or pumpkins-on-legs appear here, the comic does create a kind of unified space within which organic-looking, seemingly three-dimensional shapes stretch and break like pulled taffy while competing with flat, apparently two-dimensional blots, which themselves are given three-dimensional positioning depending on their overlap with the taffy-like blobs. At one point something like “Kirby crackle” (the ubiquitous texture of inked dots that Jack Kirby used in his comics, beginning in the mid-1960s, to suggest everything from fires and explosions to alien energy fields or shadows in the water) appears, only for the dots to grow tails and develop into shapes approximating spermatozoa. (I am writing this after the fact, looking at my own work as a critic; I don’t recall giving them that representational identity when drawing them.) Indeed, the microscopic space of the laboratory slide, together with the floating, gravity-less feel of underwater nature documentaries, were two of my formal inspirations. However, the resulting space of the graphic novel was not so much intentionally built up based on a pre-existing conception, as it was allowed to form and grow organically out of the interaction of brushstrokes, some of which remained flat on the page while others intertwined with more of their kind to form illusions of volume.


Universe A arose out of a desire to overcome what I saw as one of the limitations of all abstract comics up to this point, including my own earlier ones: being relatively short, they tended to chronicle one formal event, a simple set of changes, one basic formal arc, then politely get out of the way. I set myself the goal of a two-hundred-page continuous abstract narrative as a challenge, to see how such formal transformation could be kept going (hopefully in an interesting way) at a much greater length than heretofore practiced. The idea, if you will, is similar to writing a symphony when everything done so far has been in basic song form. Composers were forced to develop new forms that could carry musical development over stretches of twenty or thirty minutes rather than three. A good example of this is the sonata form, as practiced by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, which, simply put, complicated things by contrasting themes, breaking them up, and interweaving them, rather than simply repeating them once or twice then stopping. Since music is always on my mind in some form or another, you will find in the excerpt here an interweaving of different sets of visual shapes—blobs and blots and conduits and more—that is not so different from what I just described; and indeed music provided a model for how to structure a lengthy abstract visual narrative, for which I could find no other models elsewhere.


A few more thoughts on abstract comics, if I may:


1. Abstract comics, music, and “formal narrative.”


Over the years I have gone back and forth on the question of whether to call what an abstract comic does a “narrative.” In the end, I have settled, at least provisionally, on a distinction between story—or represented, diegetic narrative—and what I’ve been calling “formal narrative.”


What do I mean by “formal narrative”? One can picture it as akin to the relatively common graphs one sees, in creative writing textbooks, of story arcs (e.g., exposition, complication, climax, resolution, denouement, etc.). The very existence of such graphs implies that a formal notion of narrative exists “before” any content is grafted onto it. A good parallel here is, again, music. Let’s shift to a totally different genre than classical: at its most basic, the chord pattern of a 12-bar blues is I IV I V I. (In C major, this would translate to the following chords: C F C G C.) That is to say, we go from the tonic to a different chord (the subdominant), which creates tension that needs to be released; however, the return to I (the tonic) is not very satisfying at this point, and the tension to some extent remains even when we are back in the tonic; then a modulation to V (the dominant) resolves much more satisfyingly in I, and the stanza is closed. So the chord pattern of the 12-bar blues already implies a formal narrative of exposition, tension, and release to which the text can then be fitted. Since this chord pattern (and even the basic melody of the blues) is so well established, here we see a formal narrative that clearly precedes the verbal content, the story told in the lyrics.


More complex formal narratives, that are even closer to the creative-writing story-arc pattern described above, appear in instrumental music. Here we can return to the sonata, or more specifically the sonata-allegro, form. A basic version of this has the first theme in the tonic, the second theme modulating to a different key, followed by a development section in which the themes are broken apart and interbraided, before a recapitulation of the original themes leads to the conclusion of the movement. The notion of a formal narrative can also be expanded to the full discourse of a multi-movement piece, such as Beethoven’s Fifth, the harmonic pattern of which (from an anxious C minor to a triumphant C major, via a second theme in E flat major, a slow movement in A flat major, and so on) can be easily traced. My point here is that, if one pays attention, one can experience the Fifth, or any other instrumental piece by Beethoven or Mozart or Brahms or whomever, as a narrative—though one with no definite content. As a formal narrative. (This was also the logic, by the way, behind the subtitle of my abstract-comics piece 24 x 24: A Vague Epic, collected in my book Nautilus, 2009).


This, then, is what I’ve been trying to do in my comics. Besides a comics artist, I am also a comics academic, and my two pursuits fully inform each other. In an article on “Abstract Form” in Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man (published in Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, edited by Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan, 2012), I first proposed the notion of sequential dynamism, which I defined as:

The formal visual energy, created by compositional and other elements internal to each panel and by the layout, that in a comic propels the reader’s eye from panel to panel and from page to page, and that imparts a sense of sustained or varied visual rhythms, sometimes along the predetermined left-to-right, top-to-bottom path of reading, other times by creating alternate paths.

This concept was a way of getting at the abstract visual narrative that underlies, in Ditko’s work, the representational one, in the same way that a formal pattern of harmony underlies, say, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I also explored musical analogies in an article on Hergé’s Tintin album, The Castafiore Emerald (in Joe Sutliff Sanders, ed., The Comics of Hergé, 2016).  There I was concerned with the issue of polyphony in comics as well as with motivic repetition and formal leitmotifs.


In putting together a full graphic novel I had to draw on all these resources in order to keep an abstract narrative going at that length. So you will see sequential dynamism, repetition of formal shapes and patterns, and even polyphony at work.



2. Difference and temporality, iconostasis and sequential dynamism in abstract comics.


For Jacques Derrida, signification in any text arises out of the temporal deferral of differance becoming stabilized into a conceptual/spatial difference between signs. Comics, in the transition from one panel to the next across the blank space referred to as “the gutter,” seem to reverse that process: a spatial difference (that of two side-by-side panels) becomes an act of temporal deferring which leads us to read one panel before the other, and which thereby establishes the very basis of sequence in sequential art. In representational narrative comics, the temporality created leads from one diegetic moment (or short span of time), attached to one panel, to another. Basing ourselves upon the narrated plot, we infer approximately how much time has passed from one panel to the next, then to the following one, and so on.


Abstract comics, however, never establish a concrete, unified diegesis with a pre-set and easily readable temporality. They create movement from panel to panel to construct sequences that don’t imply a represented duration. Not anchored within a specific temporality, then, each abstract panel remains temporally undefined, undecidable; the differance (or reverse differance, if you will, or parody thereof) leads from undecidable to undecidable, functioning more as a system of transition between negative, or at least non-positive, terms.


The gutter itself is a frame (around each panel on a page) that enters into and cuts across the very space of the page. Here a comparison can be drawn to Stéphane Mallarmé’s discussion of how in his visual poem, Un Coup de dés, the blank paper that usually frames a traditional poem on the page is disseminated throughout the poem itself, between clauses and between words. As Mallarmé puts it in the preface to the poem’s original 1897 publication, “the paper intervenes every time.”  A similar notion of dissemination, of the scattering of an image or of images, can be applied to the comics page: the framing “blanks” enter the field of the page; they structure the sequence and array it spatially. In comics, too, the paper intervenes every time.


Criss-crossed by the network of gutters, the page sets up an array of images, usually within a rectangular field. To the tendency to see that field as a visual gestalt I have applied the term “iconostasis” (a term derived from the work of art historian Werner Hofmann). And yet, despite perceiving it as a gestalt, we traverse that field sequentially. This may seem paradoxical, especially in representational comics that place a strong emphasis on the visual unity of the page. Such comics invite a double vision: on one hand, the overall design; on the other, a sequential reading that, as it focuses on each individual panel, at least conceptually blinds the reader to, or eclipses, the rest of the page. Such a sequential reading is secured by the temporality of the represented diegesis:  that is, we simply move in time (usually forward) from one moment in the narrative to the next. The gestalt of the page is then reduced to simple graphic design and often seen as a subsidiary (desirable, but not essential) to the act of sequential narration. (For example, Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics only discusses panel-to-panel sequencing and has little to say about layout.)


In this regard too abstract comics complicate the issue. As an abstract comic does not provide a pre-set diegetic temporality, panels are no longer anchored by posited temporal moments within the represented narrative. What, then, the reader might ask, still compels us to read abstract comics sequentially? A simple answer might be the fact of their publication in a comics context. Abstract comics reveal that the overall field of the page is not equivalent to the neutral space of the canvas: published as a comic, an abstract comics page is a priori ruled by the expectation that it will be read somehow, that is to say, traversed from a beginning point to an end point (the top left corner and the bottom right one, respectively, in the Western tradition). Any comics page begins not as a flat field but as a vector space controlled by a preexisting, implicit directionality of reading, and the narration or flow of the page has to either follow or somehow contend with that directionality.


An abstract comic exists as a comic, as an act of visual narration, only in the transition between panels. Therefore, the visual juxtaposition of panels is crucial to its functioning, and that readerly phenomenon, noticed in representational comics, of eclipsing the rest of the page while focusing on a single panel is no longer an option. The abstract comics page forms a differential visual field inhabited and structured by differences and deferrals that can only be perceived within its gestalt. As the comic is unable to fall back upon a represented temporality, the implicit directionality of its visual field is essential to it. Arrayed along that directionality, yet also modulated by other juxtapositions that go beyond simple linear sequencing, the set of panel-to-panel differences constructs the sequential dynamism that scans the page.



3. Form and emptiness.


All of the above can perhaps be put another way. In the front matter to Nautilus I placed (pretentiously, in the original Sanskrit) an epigraph from the Diamond Sutra which translates as “form is emptiness, emptiness is nothing but form.” Despite the highfalutin rhetoric, this was partly a joking reference to how the comics collected there played with negative space, so that many of them could be read alternately as black shapes against a white background or as white shapes against black. However, in retrospect, the quote could be read as saying something more complex about abstract comics.


In representational comics, the notion of cartooning smacks of unrepentant Platonism: reduced to their essences, all incidental details removed, cartoony images are, or try to be, embodiments of the ideal form that is indistinguishable from its concept. Each cartoony icon (as, for example, argued at length by Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden in How to Read Nancy, but also by McCloud in Understanding Comics and by others) reduces to its essence that for which it stands, be it Nancy herself, a rock, a tree, or a teacup.


As opposed to Platonism, the Mahayana notion of the identity of emptiness and form suggests that nothing—no person, no object, no entity of any kind—has self-standing essence. In the same way that, in a brush painting by Nantembo, the identity of the Zen patriarch Bodhidharma is simultaneously affirmed and negated by the brushstrokes that construct his portrait, and that remain inescapably splashes of ink on rice paper, Nancy herself is a construct of ink on paper, and always at risk of breaking apart into nothing but meaningless traces.


From this perspective, abstract comics are anti-Platonist narratives, in which shapes briefly form then fall apart, in which brushstrokes cohere and decohere, in which our reading of any panel or of any configuration of traces is dependent on the directionally energized gestalt of the page or of the entire book, and ultimately in which any form is created on the ground of emptiness and emptiness itself becomes form.





Speaking of epigraphs, here are the two I appended to the full version of Universe A:


“… a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart.” — G. Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form, 1969.


“I have split the infinite. Beyond is anything.” — Ern Malley, “Petit Testament,” as published in Angry Penguins (Melbourne, Australia), Autumn 1944.


How they apply to abstract comics is an exercise I will leave to the reader.


Andrei Molotiu is an artist and art historian living in Bloomington, Indiana. He is the author of Fragonard’s Allegory of Love and of Nautilus, a collection of abstract comics. He is also the editor of Abstract Comics: The Anthology. He is currently co-curating the exhibition Raw, Weirdo, and Beyond: American Alternative Comics, 1980-2000, which will open in September 2022 at the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College.